Saturday, March 04, 2006

Muir in The Philadelphia Inquirer!

Hey folks, I was interviewed in an article about the new Battlestar Galactica by journalist David Hiltbrand last week. The piece ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday (March 2, 2006), and it concerns the on-going divisions between old school BSG'ers and the new show.

Here's a clip from "A Whole New Dimension for Battlestar Galactica," Mr. Hiltbrand's article:

"They pull a lot from contemporary politics," agrees John Kenneth Muir, author of An Analytical Guide to Television's Battlestar Galactica. "It's ripped from the headlines. There was an Abu Ghraib torture episode. It's pretty clear these are post-9/11 Americans in space."

The show's unconventional strategy seems to be paying off. As it approaches the final episode of its second season on March 10, BSG is averaging 2.3 million viewers a week. "It's our highest-rated original series ever," says Dave Howe, executive vice president of Sci Fi. "It's also our youngest skewing series, and it's unbelievably successful internationally as well."

It's no surprise that some of the people who enjoyed the original series find the wholesale changes irksome. "It's like they're trying to poke us in the eye with every episode," says Muir, who numbers himself among the "crusty old fans." "The original show was very family-based. There were jokes about it being Bonanza in Space. It was like Lassie or Little House [on the Prairie]. It was about how families take care of each other in times of crisis."

While the characters in the '70s show were cut from a heroic mold, the new crew has issues. "What I've heard fans of the original say is that there's nobody to really like," Muir says. "People who were formerly honorable have been saddled with these soap-opera syndromes, like drinking or rage."

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "The Sleestak God"

In our second installment of the 1974-1976 Sid and Marty Krofft live-action Saturday morning TV series, Land of the Lost, the stranded Marshall family is introduced - a bit unwillingly - to the other race of "people" inhabiting this unusual pocket universe: the fearsome Sleestak.

"The Sleestak God" opens with Holly and Will being tasked by their Dad, Rick Marshall, to get a refill from the nearby watering hole. The watering jug we saw last week ("Cha-Ka") has miraculously reproduced, and now the Marshalls have two of them. Anyway, Will and Holly head off across a bridge over a chasm (and Cha-Ka follows them...) as they find an amazing forgotten city carved into the side of an imposing mountain. Our first view of the city and the ancient temple dominating it is a nice, long, revealing pan left across the grounds (and it's actually a highly-detailed miniature)
. Before long, however, Holly and Will get chased by the guardian of the campus, an allosaurus they name "Big Alice."

On one wall near the city is scrawled in chalk the warning: BEWARE OF SLEESTAK. Since the message is written in English, this is our first inkling that other humans have before been trapped in the Land of the Lost.

When Will and Holly are captured by the hissing, reptilian Sleestak (who also adorn cross-bows as side-arms), Cha-Ka brings Rick Marshall to the temple. But will they arrive in time to save the kids from from being a sacrifice to the hungry, bellowing (and unseen...) Sleestak God that inhabits a misty pit?

Anyway, that's the plot of this second episode, written by David Gerrold and directed by Dennis Steinmetz. Since this is only the second episode of the series, it's clear that many of the concepts and people on the show are still being developed, and other than the dinosaurs, the Sleestaks may be the most important component. We don't know it yet, but they have a fascinating history (and future?) My only problem in this installment is that the Sleestak are supposed to be cave dwellers who can't stand light (and can be fought with the only weapon the Marshals have: fire!). However, three Sleestak attack Will and Holly outside the city in broad daylight, which seems odd and inconsistent.

This week also provides the first glimpse of another Land of the Lost native, the Triceratops named Spike. And we get more of Cha-Ka's language. "Osu" is the Paku word for water.

On the Gilligan's Island list of devices and instruments made by the Marshalls to make their stay in the Land of the Lost more "civilized," we see in "The Sleestak God" that Marshall has fashioned a basket out of twigs, and that Holly has built a broom out of straw (so she can do housework in the cave!) Finally, each of the Marshalls is now also wearing a small square mirror around their necks (where did they get these?) They can communicate using the mirrors - across vast distances - in Morse Cod, as Will and Rick do in this episode. Convenient that they should all know Morse Code, though, isn't it?

As for the geography of the Land of the Lost, this is the first episode in which viewers see the ravine separating High Bluff (and Grumpy's territory) from the Sleestak City (and Big Alice's territory).


Next week, we meet another (more friendly) denizen of The Land of the Lost in "Dopey."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK #32: Buttons!

Over the years, political buttons have proven to be very valuable collectibles. Own a Bush/Quayle '92 button? Or how about a Gore/Leiberman 2000? Yet - perhaps not surprisingly - there's also such a thing as science fiction film and tv buttons.

I think the first collectible I ever actually purchased with my own money (meaning my allowance...) may very well have been a button from Star Wars. This was back in 1977, and my favorite character was Chewbacca. Because he was kind of like a monster, I guess, and I was a King Kong fan. I was in the second grade when I bought my prized Chewbacca button at Englishtown Flea Market. After I bought it, you couldn't get me to take it off.

Over the years, I collected more, including ones from ALF, Space: 1999 and the like. When I was in high school, my sister bought me a personal favorite: a "Spock for President" button, which I guess is sort of the equivalent of a political button, right? I mean, imagine how much better our country would be if Mr. Spock really were President. If the decisions he made for our well-being were based on principles like logic, peace, infinite diversity in infinite combinations and the like. Not only that, he plays a mean game of three dimensional chess.

Anyway, "buttons" are the toy of the week. Anyone out there collect 'em? I'm guessing they're probably not as popular as other sci-fi collectibles because buttons are cheap, easy to create, and probably not even "official." Still, they're fun.

And I do own a political button, by the way. It isn't pictured here. But it reads "Jane Wyman was right..." Hopefully, someone out there understands what that snarky remark means.

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a Media-Tie In


Today, movie and TV tie-in books are gorgeous and slick. Better yet, they're written by a stable of outstanding authors who really understand (and admire...) the material they're adapting; like Peter David, Keith R.A. De Candido, Greg Cox, or Lee Goldberg.

When you read one of their tie-ins you get the feeling you're in the hands of not merely of a fine storyteller, but one who thoroughly understands the details of the genre, and the particularly universe where they're dabbling.

Today, for the "collectible of the week," I'm looking back at what might be termed the pre-history of these media tie-ins, in particular, a book I've owned since I was a little kid. It's the "authorized edition" of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea by Raymond F. Jones. Whitman Publishing Company (in Racine, Wisconsin) published this hardcover tie-in to the Irwin Allen series back in 1965...over forty years ago.

The book is 212 pages (of fairly large type), divided into eleven chapters with titles like "Doom Beneath the Sea," "The Magnetic Field" and "Farewell to Minos." Also - as a real plus - the book is peppered by a series of illustrations from Leon Jason Studios. These pictures are basic, and yet I find them rather lovely.

I always had a fascination with submarines when I was young. One of my favorite movies was the Walt Disney adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring James Mason, and I also owned a toy GI Joe submarine (replete with giant squid!) that could go diving deep below the surface of the backyard swimming pool. So Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a natural for me. I always enjoyed the adventures of the Seaview and dreamed of piloting the Flying Submarine myself. When I was young, I didn't detect that the series became campy as it went along. To me, it was just a grand adventure.

This sturdy, solid book has remained with me through adolescence and now adulthood, its pages increasingly yellowed and parched; it's spine still strong, if tattered in a few spots. And you know something? The writing isn't half bad, either. Here's an excerpt:

"THE SEA mothered the giant gray submarine. With easy strength it lifted the vessel on long, rolling waves, then plunged it beneath the surface, only to raise it once more and bathe it in whitecaps and spray.

Captain Lee Crane stood at the huge, square observation ports in the bow of the Seaview and watched the breaking waves expectantly. At each plunge the water surged over the ports and drowned the world outside. Then, as the ship lifted, the water drained in shining cascades and sunlight poured in."

Well, I must have read this particular adventure of the Seaview a dozen times, and dreamed of wild adventures beneath the waves, manning the torpedoes or standing at the giant windows of the observation bay. So I just wanted to share my memories of this book today.

I have no doubt that - in some fashion - reading novelizations and tie-ins (like the James Blish Star Trek books...) - only stoked my enthusiasm for TV, film, and I feel good knowing that fine authors are performing the same duty for the next generation...

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Wes Craven's New Nightmare


"The more she read, the more she realized that what she had in her hands was nothing more or less than her life itself; that everything she had experienced and thought was bound within those pages. There was no movie. There was only...her life."

-Heather Langenkamp (as herself) discovers the truth in Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994).

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY #11: A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7, the 1978-1981 British Television Space Adventure

How's that for a wordy title?

A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7 was my fifth book, penned ages ago, in the very distant-seeming days of 1998. It was published by McFarland and Company Inc., Publishers in 1999. Now, in 2006, this effort is being re-published in softcover with brand new cover art.

Since my Blake book is "timely" again (and part of my 2006 release stable, alongside Mercy in Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair [Applause Books] and Behind the Screen: This is Spinal Tap [Emmis Books]), I figured it was time to spotlight it in this bi-weekly feature devoted to my ham-handed attempts to promote my own work. Message: buy my books. Please.

Anyway, Blake's 7 is a great, memorable science fiction TV program from Great Britain, and too few genre fans in America have seen it. The series is not even currently released on DVD here in the States, and that's a big time bummer. But many folks who have seen the show have termed the series "The Anti-Star Trek" because it features many commonalities with Gene Roddenberry's space opera, but then turns those commonalities on their head. For instance, there's a matter transporter in Blake's 7, but it's not like Star Trek's. And here, the Federation is a totalitarian, evil Empire, not a force for good.

Here's what some of the critics said about my Blake's 7 book back when it was released:

"...the daddy of all references sources about the show and its following...a useful guide...Muir delivers the substance."-ZEALOT.COM

"Mr. Muir's book, like the distant universe it describes, glows brightly."-R.J FYNE, KEAN UNIVERSITY, FILM AND HISTORY

"Muir is good at catching details...[Muir's] tying together of themes and threads within the series is a great strength of the book." - Ann Basart, HERMIT.ORG: Deeply Silly Space Series or Heroic Poem?


And this material is from my introduction:

The most memorable science fiction programs in television history have been those which deliberately modify classic stories or myths and reiterate them in new and exciting contexts, frequently the outer space arena.

The long-honored genre standard-bearer, Star Trek (1966-1969) is an extension of American pioneer and imperialist ideals and was even referred to by its creator, Gene Roddenberry, as "Wagon Train to the Stars." Irwin Allen's Lost in Space (1965-68) is a futuristic re-telling of The Swiss Family Robinson with a family - again the Robinsons - marooned on a far-off planet rather than an isolated island. Even the much-maligned Glen Larson saga, Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) is a quasi Biblical epic in its vision of the human race's cosmic exodus and passage through a red space field, a galactic equivalent of the Red Sea.

Similarly, Terry Nation's unique British entry in the science fiction television sweepstakes, Blake's 7 (1978-81) is a futuristic accumulation and translation of classical literary, film and television traditions. It is part Robin Hood with its band of futuristic outlaws facing the overwhelming power of an evil Galactic Empire, and part The Seven Samurai (1954) or The Magnificent Seven (1960) in its thematic disposition to dramatize heroes defending the innocent from conquering forces both alien and human. Unlike Robin Hood, however, Blake's 7's television avengers are noticeably not merry men.

On the contrary, the heroes of Blake's 7 are depicted in this four-year, 52-episode BBC series as a desperate, fatalistic and determinedly pragmatic band. Although Blake is a man of honor, his mind starts to break down after the death of a follower ("Pressure Point") and his continued failure to defeat the mighty Terran Federation. Blake's right hand man, Avon, is even less traditional. Equipped with a razor-sharp intellect and an instinct for self-preservation, Avon chooses to accompany Blake on his cosmic quest only because it suits his purposes.

In the words of creator Nation, his television series is not about outer space or alien civilizations at all. Instead, it concerns "The little guy against City Hall." The heroes, including a loyal "everyman," a beautiful smuggler and a common thief, are thus defined in totally realistic and believable, non-superhuman terms.

When one considers that so many popular science fiction shows, from classic Star Trek to Babylon 5 (1993-98) are endorsements of overreaching futuristic military forces proffering "peace," whether it be Starfleet in Trek, the Earth Alliance in Babylon 5, the Directorate in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) or even the United Earth Oceans of SeaQuest DSV (1993-96), this anti-establishment thematic strand marks Blake's 7 as a unique addition the genre's video pantheon.

It is a relief to report that Blake's 7 protagonists do not hold military rank, wear neatly ironed uniforms or work together in a tightly structured hierarchy for the "enrichment" of mankind. They are not pioneers or diplomats, but rather very human outlaws fighting a vicious battle against injustice. Fortunately, Blake's 7 is a provocative drama worthy of scrutiny for reasons beyond its rejection of the traditional genre tropes.

Unlike its British contemporaries in the 1970s, namely Space:1999 (1975-1977), Star Maidens (1976) and Doctor Who (1963-89), each episode in this Terry Nation series does not comprise a single adventure. Instead, each story builds on previous ones and plays as a chapter in a magnum opus: a video novel about the liberation of an oppressed galaxy. In the nineties, in the heyday of Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and other shows featuring so-called "story arcs," this innovation is often underestimated or unreported. Yet Blake's 7 developed the "arc" concept in science fiction television a dozen years before the above-listed series were aired or conceived.

Blake's 7 is also a less frivolous series than many genre dramas in vogue today. As if manipulated by a diabolical puppet master, the series is savage in its treatment of beloved characters and icons. Main characters, including Blake himself, disappear or are killed...Simply put, Blake's 7 takes no prisoners. Fortunately, its Machiavellian nature perfectly fits the tenor of the "resistance" premise, and the totalitarian Federation often wins the day.

Also lending the series a unique, gritty feel is the fact that Blake's 7 was lensed by the penny-pinching BBC on an exceedingly low budget. The sets are bare, even minimalist, and the futuristic hardware and instrumentation look like cast-off remnants of a fallen technological race.

By necessity, the series was often shot in nuclear power plants and dusty quarries (lovingly called "chalk pits" by film crews), so the planets visited by Blake's team are either oppressively sterile, industrial, or barren and dying. The unexpected but welcome result of these cheap production expedients is that Blake's 7 visually dramatizes an Empire of collapsing infrastructures and bureaucracy. The pieced-together sets are a perfect metaphor for a rotting Federation unable to sustain itself, rapidly squandering resources. The Soviet Union (circa 1985) in space is not a bad metaphor for the Blake's 7 future.

...Though its visual effects are frequently underwhelming, Blake's 7 remains - more than two decades after its debut - a go-for-the-throat genre effort with fine acting, superlative writing, and a message of hope and freedom worthy of retrospect in the new millennium...

So check out my book on B7 if you can swing it. You can order the book at McFarland,
here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Guess the Movie # 5


Okay, let's see - the picture quality isn't great, but can anybody guess what movie this still comes from? We had a fast winner last week (it was The Philadelphia Experiment [1984]). Leave your answers in the comments!!!

TV REVIEW: Deal or No Deal

Deal? Or not so much?

This high-powered, slick game show airing on NBC turned out to be a big surprise hit the last time it aired (racking up something on the order of 50 million viewers...), so I figured that last night I ought to check out Deal or No Deal for myself.

Every few years, network TV experiences a "game show" craze. Back in 2000 and 2001, this craze brought us Who Wants to Be A Millionaire (every...bloody...night...of...the... week), as well as The Weakest Link. I guess the cycle's coming around again, and my initial perception about Deal or No Deal (before watching the show...) was that the title sounded like a synonym for the Monty Hall classic, Let's Make a Deal. No?

Turns out the comparison isn't particularly apt. Let's Make a Deal featured colorful guests in crazy costumes enthusiastically guessing about the prizes hidden behind numbered doors. Deal or No Deal is a different animal all together. Reflecting our times, it's a serious, no-frills business that feels more like a meeting with mortgage lenders or some other pressure-cooker, rather than genuine fun. Everybody looks great - the set is multi-story, opulently lit, and displays the wealth of American culture. The game play is basic and stream-lined, and the stress level of the contestants appears quite high, if last night's installment was any example.

The premise of the show is this: host Howie Mandel (sans hair...) invites up to a podium a new contestant. Last night, it was a Las Vegas S.W.A.T. officer. Anyway, to paraphrase Mr. Mandel, there are "no crazy stunts, no trivia, no skill" involved in the game, just an answer to the simple question "deal or no deal." In other words, this is a perfect game for the age of Paris Hilton. The contestants don't need to be intelligent, well-read or talented. They just have to show up and bear the pressure.

Anyway, to get the game started, twenty-six super sexy models who look like they just came off Robert Palmer's clone farm, descend onto a staircase holding 26 suitcases. In each suitcase is a denomination of money ranging from one penny to a million dollars. The contestant picks a briefcase, in hopes that it contains big money, and then has to watch - in torturous slow-motion and between commercial breaks - as he is asked to open up the other cases, a few at a time, to determine how much he wins.

Every now and then, a shadowy figure called "the banker" makes an offer from a dark booth above the stage, trying to play the odds and keep the contestant from winning too much money. In a bit of melodrama, he calls down to the stage and makes offers that the contestant can accept or reject. Hence a deal. Or no deal.

As matters get increasingly hairy, the contestant is allowed to bring a team of supporters on stage. And then, when things get really rough, an "expert" comes up for moral support and professional advice. Last night, that expert was Donald Trump, who first advised the police officer to "go for it," but when the money got up to $359,000.00 wisely admonished the contestant to "take the money." He did.

To keep the game interactive, Deal or No Deal also offers viewers a chance to win at home. They can win ten thousand dollars if they get up off the sofa and text message a "guess" about which of six briefcases contains the money.

I've watched game shows since I was a little kid (Anybody remember Whew!?), and they're occasionally diverting, especially if you're taking heavy flu medication. Honestly, I can't really commit to them on any long term basis. But word to the wise: if you want to get on any quiz show as a contestant, Deal or No Deal seems like the ideal choice since you won't have to study geography, science, history, sports and leisure, entertainment trivia or anything else beforehand.

Personally, I prefer Jeopardy. At least when Jeopardy's over, I've learned a thing or two about a thing or two, and don't feel like I've wasted an hour of my life. For me, that's the deal-breaker on Deal or No Deal. Having watched it once, I feel no need or burning desire to watch it again. My "offer" to NBC? They should play this thing out fast. Because people will tire of it quickly.

TV REVIEW: Medium: "Sweet Child O'Mine"

With the winter Olympics done, Medium returned to the NBC schedule last night with a solid, if not inspired episode, "Sweet Child O'Mine." This was the first time I watched the series and felt I had a good sense of where the story was headed, and what the resolution would be. And, I turned out to be right.

Which is a shame, because this is a fun, well-written, splendidly-acted series that I've admired up until now. Last night's segment just felt a tad...rote.

Here's the story: Our favorite psychic, Allison DuBois awakes from a bad dream about the baby she and Joe lost (in a miscarriage) fifteen years earlier. She dreams of him as a fifteen-year old boy, named Brian. Disturbed, she gets out of bed early and heads to the Coffee Palace, only to find out that the store manager, Kristin Morehouse, has been brutally murdered. All signs point back to a fifteen year old boy who - you guessed it - is a dead ringer for Brian in Allison's dream. Only here he's Jessie Andrews, son of a single mother and obstetrician. His shoe prints are found in the victim's blood at the coffee shop, but - feeling ilke a protective mom - Allison follows the twists and the turns in the case in hopes of proving the boy's innocence.

The solution to the mystery in this episode of Medium, penned by Moira Kirland and directed by Perry Lang, is one that avid series watchers will spot from a mile away. That said, I still enjoyed how the episode (and indeed, many installments) deal with Allison's ongoing crisis. Sometimes - as is the case here - her emotions as a mother and as a human being conflict with her duties as a law enforcement official. The decision she makes in this episode is the right one, though it costs her on a personal level. There's what the law demands, and what "feels" right, but as an officer on the prosecutor's team, she must follow the law.

Medium's "B" plot, about Bridget adopting a sick, twelve year old dog named Angus was also touching, and it gave Joe something to do in the episode besides obsess over Allison, but even this family crisis felt a little routine. Yes, it was sweet and diverting (and I'm a sucker for stories about dogs and cats..), but I felt like the series had been on this terrain before.

Medium's been a great series so far. I haven't felt that persistent "hardening of the arteries" yet, that moment where the formula is so cemented that everybody appears to be flying on automatic pilot, on a pre-programmed, pre-ordained course. This less-than-brilliant episode was hopefully just an anomaly. Let's hope next week's episode is better...

Monday, February 27, 2006

CATNAP #33: One of those Days!



Two views of my sweet Lila. In the top picture, she's caught in mid-yawn. In the bottom one, she's making moon-eyes at me. Sweet thing.

We took Lila in yesterday for her appointment at the emergency vet's office to get the echocardiogram (the ultrasound) our regular doctor recommended. The good news is that Lila's heart is strong, healthy and showing no signs of the possibly progressive condition that Ezri has contracted. Lila's heart rate was high normal (which I attribute to stress...), and she had a slight gallop, but the ultrasound revealed no thickening of valves, no leaking/regurgitation of blood, nothing to be concerned about. I'm hugely relieved.

Now if we can just get Ezri in good shape. She's taking three pills a day (one every eight hours) for her heart condition. She gets another ultra sound in September. If the disease hasn't progressed, we'll know she had endocarditis, meaning an infection that scarred part of her heart. If the valves are still thickening, millimeter-by-millimeter, we'll have reason to be concerned that she really and truly has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a fatal heart disease.

Farewell Carl Kolchak; Farewell Barney Fife

It's with a heavy heart that I write that American television lost two of its greatest actors over the weekends, actors Darren McGavin and Don Knotts, both in their early eighties. These actors gave audiences, nay generations of audiences hours of joy, happiness, and laughs. Their considerable bodies of work live after them, and we know their families will miss them.

I'm going to start with Darren McGavin since this blog usually focuses on horror and sci-fi. This remarkable actor played so many great parts during his long and distinguished career (including private dick Mike Hammer; a series from the 1950s that was condemned for being overly violent...), yet it is for the one-of-a-kind role of Carl Kolchak - that dogged reporter and hunter of things supernatural - that this author will always remember him.

What an odd (and distinctive) bird Carl Kolchak was, in his bright white running shoes (which he wore to catch a good story...), his tatty old hat and seersucker suit. I loved how McGavin, as Kolchak, in the series credits for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) would stroll into his run-down office at the INS, whistling a cheery tune...oblivious. Then, as he approached his desk, he'd toss his hat toward the far wall, as if there were a hook there to hang it on. There wasn't, and the hat just hit the floor. But Karl didn't seem to notice, or get bothered by that.

That was a wonderful, individual touch that spoke volumes about the character, and how he viewed his world. There was part of Kolchak who always wanted to return to the world of The New York Times or The Washington Post, - where reporters doubtlessly merited office hat racks - but the pesky truth kept getting in his way. The New York Times didn't want to hear about succubi or werewolves or zombies or vampires, that was for sure.

Mr. McGavin always brought a charming bluster, good humor and fly-in-the-ointment quality to Kolchak. Carl was forever the little man fighting city hall (in the post-Watergate era). My favorite scenes on the short-lived program inevitably involved Kolchak going toe-to-toe with an officious cop or political figure at a press conference. No matter whom he faced, Kolchak would never back down, never soft-pedal the truth...even if it could get him ejected from the event, thrown in jail, or on occasion, roughed up. My secret dream was always to see Carl Kolchak go one-on-one with Scott McClellan or Ari Fleischer in a Presidential Press Briefing. By God, then we'd either get some straight answers, and those guys would be forever "revealed" as dissemblers and apologists.

As we saw recently with the ill-fated remake, not just anybody can play Carl Kolchak. Mr. McGavin inhabited that unique, memorable character in a special way few actors manage today. In our modern culture, we're consumed with the idea of giving characters "back story," and "angst" and the like, but back in the days of the original Kolchak, McGavin created a memorable and individual personality without benefit of such trite writers' hooks. In the process, he made the man a legend.

I watched Kolchak: The Night Stalker again when it was released on DVD late last year, and it holds up well, thirty years later. My wife, Kathryn, had never watched the series before, and she fell madly in love with the show; much more than I expected. She couldn't wait to watch the next episode and judged - quite correctly, I think - that the series was always more about human nature (often, very funny human nature...), than about the monster of the week. So - yeah - the monster costumes may be dated, but McGavin's zeal in that role has prevented the show from aging a day. It's still relevant in today's world. It's easy to see why the actor had such a love affair with the part.

Here's a snippet from an obituary for Mr McGavin by Martin Weil at The Washington Post:

In the "Night Stalker" series, Mr. McGavin wore a porkpie hat to play reporter Carl Kolchak, who revealed the occult forces behind the reality of the Chicago streets. Mr. McGavin is widely remembered as the father in 1983's "A Christmas Story," a classic that reappears every year during the holiday season.

He was also Mike Hammer, the embodiment of the hard-nosed private eye, in the series based on the Mickey Spillane novels.

In dozens of roles in made-for-TV movies, in series, or in episodes of series, Mr. McGavin appeared cynical or curmudgeonly. But even if he was a grouch, he was frequently a grouch with a glint in his eye.

York McGavin said last night that the irascible on-screen figure was not the father he knew. He said, however, that his father was a professional who knew what was demanded of him, "took great pride in his craft" and came to work prepared.


And this, from The New York Times (in a piece by Nadine Brozan):

Spanning almost seven decades, his versatile career took him from "Macbeth" to "Marcus Welby M.D." He played General George S. Patton in the television biography "Ike" and appeared recently in "The "X Files," a show said to have been inspired by "The Night Stalker." He won an Emmy Award in 1990 for playing Candice Bergen's father in "Murphy Brown." He also was the voice for a time on Budweiser's "This Bud's for You" commercials.

I received an e-mail from my friend and fellow McGavin admirer, Howard Margolin - the host of Destinies: the Voice of Science Fiction, yesterday, making me aware of Mr. McGavin's passing. I was devastated by the loss, and then - suddenly - saddened all over again to learn that Don Knotts had passed away as well. It was a bad, bad weekend for cult TV lovers.

Mr. Knotts will always be remembered for The Andy Griffith Show, and the role of a lifetime, bumbler deputy Barney Fife. Even the name "Barney Fife" has come into the cultural lexicon as a short-hand reference to an inept cop. Knotts made that self-important but ultimately sweet character his own, and here in North Carolina, he (and Griffith too) are positively revered for their time in Mayberry. And with good reason.

Yet, growing up in New Jersey - far from Mayberry, my first acquaintance with Don Knotts' came through some childrens' movies he made for Walt Disney Studios in the 1970s, The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979).

I also always watched Mr. Knotts TV work on the jiggle-fest Three's Company. He played Mr. Furley, the building landlord, in the final years (1979-84) of that John Ritter sitcom, after the Ropers left the series. Even there, in that disco era relic (and even garbed in the most ridiculous 70s-style outfits imaginable), Knotts was incredibly funny. I'll never forget some of the comedic facial expressions he produced in that part. They were, to use an overrused term - classic.

In the genre, Don Knotts made a name for himself in some ridiculous comedies from the 1960s too, including The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) and The Reluctant Astronaut (1967). Those movies all boast a cult following, even today.

This is from The New York Times piece on Mr. Knotts, by Virginia Heffernan:

He was a generous performer who liked to share the stage, and he thrived in duets, teams, variety shows, ensembles. Back in New York, he noticed a man whose hands shook and who spilled water; he combined that with Robert Benchley's famous apologetic speaker from the monologue "Treasurer's Report," and the nervous character, who went on to fame on "The Steve Allen Show," was born. Mr. Knotts plainly stole stuff, and other comics didn't mind lending him material. He was wonderfully unthreatening to other male comics, all of whom could think of themselves as one step closer to leading men than Mr. Knotts was. It's hard to think of an actor, in fact, who got more helping hands than Mr. Knotts in his early days. Male actors were forever offering him parts, trying to get him to join their acts. Sharing the stage with this skinny, spazzy guy could only make them look more commanding.

Among these mentors was Andy Griffith, whom he met when they were both cast in the play "No Time for Sergeants" in 1955. Mr. Griffith and Mr. Knotts cracked each other up. A few years later, when Mr. Knotts proposed himself as a deputy to Andy Taylor on Mr. Griffith's sitcom, Mr. Griffith went for it. Andy's crinkly, deep-set eyes conveyed calm and sagacity, while Barney's popped ones expressed pure anxiety and something akin to horror at the demands of ordinary life.

Mr. Knotts's popular movies, "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," "The Reluctant Astronaut" and "The Shakiest Gun in the West," put him on a winning streak. To comedy geeks, especially the preteen kind, his send-up of 60's superheroism came as a delight and a relief.

Hollywood, the movie and TV world, and most of all, audiences, are truly going to miss Darren McGavin and Don Knotts. They were - purely and simply - the best. This blog wishes their respective families well during a difficult time of grief, and mourns with them.